Black Lives Matter

readings, silent witness and a reflection

by Rev. Bill Gupton

Sunday, August 23, 2015
Heritage Unitarian Universalist Church
Cincinnati, Ohio

First: Listening to Black Voices

The subject of today’s service is racism – and what one activist has called the new “revolution against racism.” In recent years, it has become clear to those of us white people who have been working for racial justice and seeking to be allies with the black community, that we need to listen more. Listen to the black experience. Listen, to black voices.

Although I am about as white and privileged as it is possible to be, please know that the voices you are about to hear – the experiences you are about to hear about – are black voices. Black experiences.

Please listen.

The first voice is that of Claudia Rankine, who wrote the following this summer, in the New York Times:

A friend told me that when she gave birth to her son – before naming him, before nursing him – her first thought was: “I have to get him out of this country!”… [Now], years after his birth, whenever her son steps out of their home, her status as the mother of a living human being, remains as precarious as ever. Added to the natural fears of every parent facing the randomness of life is this other knowledge, of the ways in which institutional racism works in our country…

I asked another friend what it’s like [to be the parent of a black child]… “The condition of black life is mourning,” she said bluntly. For her, mourning lived in real time, inside her and her son’s reality – at any moment, she might lose her reason for living…

Though the white, liberal imagination likes to feel temporarily bad about black suffering – there really is no mode of empathy that can replicate the daily strain of knowing that, as a black person, you can be killed for simply being black. No hands in your pockets, no playing music, no sudden movements, no driving your car, no walking at night, no walking in the day, no turning onto this street, no entering that building, no standing your ground, no standing here, no standing there, no talking back, no playing with toy guns, no living while black.

Those words were written by a black parent, right after the killings in Charleston. Right after people were killed for praying while black. It is important that we remember that the Charleston shootings did not happen in a vacuum. Just listen to this description of something that was going on in Charleston, 25 years ago. This is a passage from Dorothy Roberts’ book “Killing the Black Body”:

In 1989, officials in Charleston, South Carolina, initiated a policy of arresting pregnant women whose prenatal tests revealed that they were smoking crack. In some cases, a team of police tracked down expectant mothers in the city’s poorest neighborhoods; in others, officers invaded the maternity ward to haul away patients in handcuffs and leg irons, hours after giving birth.

One woman spent the final weeks of pregnancy detained in a dingy cell in the Charleston County Jail. When she went into labor, she was transported, in chains, to the hospital – and remained shackled to the bed during the entire delivery.

All but one of the four dozen women arrested [in this manner] … in Charleston – was black.

The following is an excerpt from the poem “Darkest Truth,” by African American poet Mia Wright of Tulsa, Oklahoma. She read this poem during a worship service at the All Souls Unitarian Church last winter:

Confession: Sometimes, I watch my daughter ball her hands into little brown fists, and I reach out and slap them open. This reflexive action, quicker and less painful than explaining [to her] that in our society, her fist symbolizes a danger she can’t even conceive of – simply because of its color.

The slap I give is lighter than the dark truth: That despite her progressive upbringing, magnet-school education, and diverse friend pool – her physicality is always at its blackest when she is displaying unpleasant emotions in public. And so, put simply, she can’t. That part of her selfhood must always be expressed sequestered in the privacy of home, where her anger, sorrow, rage or humiliation won’t “frighten” anyone.

The dark truth of being a black mother of a black baby in America is that I must teach my child not only how to read, but how not to be mis-read. How to speak softly, tread lightly, smile reassuringly. Unfurrow brows, and open hands. How to not get suspended from school. How to not get restrained by security guards, or “accidentally” shot by police. How the caustic cocktail of being both angry, and black, could at any moment, cost her her life…

Confession: Sometimes I watch my white friends’ children with something like hollow envy. I watch their cream-colored fingers curl into fists no one finds aggressive or threatening. Hear their frustrated screams echo through grocery store or shopping mall, met only by sympathetic concern or annoyed, passing glances – and I think, in awe: There is something my child, cannot do

I confess: I don’t know how to tell her this. How do I explain to her that she must grow wary of her own body – its movements, posture and volume – just because God colored her skin a deeper shade of holy…

How do I tell her she can be anything she wants to be – but there is this one thing, she will always have to be: Black. And everything that means.

Which brings us to this passage from the fictional black character Baby Suggs, in Toni Morrison’s book “Beloved”:

We flesh. Flesh that weeps. Laughs. Flesh that dances on bare feet in grass.

Love it. Love it hard. Yonder, they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick ’em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder, they flay it. And O my people, they do not love your hands. Those they only use – tie – bind – chop off – and leave empty.

[So] love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face – ’cause they don’t love that either…

And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken – and break it again. What you say out of it, they will not heed. What you scream from it, they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body, they will snatch away, and give you leavin’s instead. No, they don’t love your mouth. You gotta love it.

This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest, and to dance. Backs that need support. Shoulders that need arms – strong arms, I’m tellin’ you. And O my people! Out yonder, hear me: They do not love your neck, unnoosed and straight. So love your neck. Put a hand on it – grace  it – stroke it. And hold it up.

The final reading, the final voice, that Kathy and I offer you before the witness and the reflection, is that of Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou, one of the leaders, of the Black Lives Matter movement. In an interview with Yes magazine, he was quoted as saying:

[Ours] is the longest rebellion against state violence in the history of the country. It’s secondary only to the Montgomery bus boycott, and six months longer than the Selma campaign…

They left Michael Brown’s body in the street for four and a half hours… It was right before school started, and there was a bouncy castle across the street from where he was lying. So there were five-year-olds saying “Mike’s laying in the street!”

They brought out police dogs before they brought an ambulance. They tried to put his body in the trunk of a car. The community was like, “You put that body in the trunk of a car, and ain’t nobody leaving here alive.” So they put his body in an SUV. That was undiginified. And when young people tried to find answers – they were met with tanks, and tear gas. It was too much.”

Silent Witness

I suspect that hearing these five black voices – all speaking with one voice, telling us the about the black experience – has generated some powerful emotions, and perhaps some conflicting thoughts, in your heart and in your mind. In a moment, I will invite you to experience those thoughts and feelings – all of them – and to bear silent witness to the unspeakable pain and horror that has been inflicted, and continues to be inflicted, on black bodies, and on black lives, in this country.

In the year since Ferguson, Rev. Sekou has gone all over the country, speaking and teaching, leading marches and actions and die-ins. He has taken those four and a half hours he referred to – the time that Michael Brown’s body lay in the street in Ferguson – and condensed them into four and a half minutes of silent witness.

In Portland, Oregon, this June, I and many other attendees at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly lay down in the street, in the middle of a busy intersection, blocking traffic, for four and a half minutes in a silent “die-in” to protest what at that time was the most recent act of atrocity against black lives in America: the murders in Charleston.

Four and a half minutes is a long time to lie in the street. It is a long time to remain silent – much longer, than we usually do, here in this sanctuary. Yet I am asking you this morning – I invite you, now – to spend four and a half minutes, in silent reflection, and in silent witness…

[four and a half minutes of silence]

Reflection:

“Black Lives Matter.” The most radical, most incendiary, most controversial statement one can make in America today.

It should give us pause, that a statement so simple, so objectively straightforward as “black lives matter” is so upsetting, to so many white people – but perhaps I should first give you a moment to pause, after four and a half minutes of silent witness. So go ahead – you can exhale now…

These are tough realities, we’re facing – not just inconvenient, but very difficult truths we’re dealing with.

And so I begin with what I consider an absolutely fundamental truth: Black lives matter. The first time I heard that slogan, my instant reaction was “Hell yes! Darn right. What a simple, succinct, undeniable motto and mantra. Way to go, whoever came up with that!”

How naïve of me. I live in a very sheltered cocoon, because it didn’t even occur to me that in America today – in America, ever since America was America – there is actually a prevailing attitude that goes something like this: “How dare black people publicly insist that their lives matter? How dare they make us white people look at how we’re treating them?”

The pushback against the Black Lives Matter movement – a movement that began as a response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, for killing unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin – the pushback was immediate – and it continues to this day. “All lives matter” quickly became the refrain of the defenders of the status quo, who feigned indignation at the implication (which of course, was never there) that white lives don’t matter. So let’s get this part out of the way, straight away:

Of course, all lives matter. As Universalists, that idea is the very foundation of our faith. All lives matter. Just because I am wearing a bracelet, today, that says “Black Lives Matter to Unitarian Universalists” – does not mean that I (or we) don’t believe all lives matter, too. Of course they do. Police who are killed – matter. People whom police kill – matter. All lives matter.

But I have to admit it makes me more than a little angry – yes, angry – when I hear my theology, my personal, religious belief that all lives matter – turned into a disingenuous, mean-spirited, hate-filled denial of the reality – yes, the reality – that we live in a nation, and are enmeshed in a social order, that demonstrates, time and time again, day after day, that some lives matter more than others – and some lives matter less.

This week marks the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina – a national tragedy that made it perfectly clear, for those who have eyes to see, exactly where our priorities are – and where they are not – in modern America. Exactly whose lives, matter.

If you think about it, there’s never really been a need for anyone to declare that “white lives matter.” Everything in this country – how we allocate our resources for everything from streets and highways to fire trucks and schools – from how we make health care available, to how we make food available – everything that happens in America, says that white lives matter.

So when I first encountered “black lives matter,” as I said, I didn’t realize how brilliantly revolutionary those three words really are. It never occurred to me – no doubt, because of where I live, how I was raised, and the lens through which I see the world – that the assertion “black lives matter” was, by definition, counter-cultural. It directly challenges a culture which tells black people, from the very moment they are born, that they, and their very lives, don’t matter.

Remember that woman who thought to herself “How can I get my son out of this country” when she gave birth to a black male child? She couldn’t get him out, of course – that’s not really an option for most people, of any color – and now, she lives with the daily fear that when her son leaves the house, he may not come home alive.

Can you imagine? Can you imagine? I’m a father, and we just sent our only child off to college on Thursday. While I have the usual parental worries about my kid being off in the world without me – what I don’t have to deal with are the very real – and very realistic – fears of a black parent. Those fears are generations old – and as fresh as this week.

This past Wednesday, it happened again in St. Louis – not many miles from Ferguson, in fact. An 18-year-old African-American was shot in the back and killed, by a white policeman – a fact confirmed both by an autopsy, and by the St. Louis police chief himself. It has now been four days since that young black man died at the hands of a uniformed officer. Statistically speaking, therefore, there has probably been another such death, somewhere in the U.S., since then.

But as is the case in nearly every one of these situations – apologists have focused on facts that cast the victim in the worst possible light. In this case, the young man in question was fleeing from a house where drugs were found. As if that means, somehow, that his life, did not matter. As if that means, he deserved to die.

On that same day – Wednesday – downtown, here in Cincinnati, lawyers for Officer Ray Tensing, who has been charged with murder in the death of Samuel DuBose, were back in court. The killing of DuBose happened while I was out of town at SUUSI with my family. I didn’t even hear about it until we were back, and in fact had been back in town a few days. How insulated, we can be. How inoculated, we who are comfortably suburban, comfortably white – how immune we are to the harsh reality that others must face, each and every day.

Recently, I had a conversation with an African-American woman who asked me what made me decide to preach to my all-white church, about Black Lives Matter. My answer was simple: The death of Samuel DuBose.

Three young black men have been gunned down in Ohio in the past year – at least, three that the media have raised to our awareness and consciousness. First there was 12-year-old Tamir Rice, in Cleveland; then 22-year-old John Crawford III in Dayton. Now, these killings have once again reached Cincinnati – reminding many of those terrible days in 2001, after the killing of Timothy Thomas in Over-the-Rhine.

Let us praise the city for how far it has come since then – and particularly let us praise the black community, and Black Lives Matter leaders, for how they have handled this latest tragedy, with non-violent protests and resistance – but let us also listen to the voice of that African-American woman whom I was talking with recently. She told me something that chilled me to the bone. She said there’s a saying, in this city’s black community: “If you can survive the racism in Cincinnati, you can survive it anywhere.”

Samuel DuBose, did not survive it. And as always seems to happen, when there is such a shooting, the apologists didn’t take long to vilify the victim.

Take a look at this. It is the front page of the Sunday paper two weeks ago. There is no article here. The only thing on this front page – of the Sunday Enquirer, mind you – is what the paper refers to as DuBose’s “rap sheet” – a list – literally, just a list – of the crimes this black man had been accused of in his lifetime.

Did that life matter? One must wonder. If DuBose had been convicted of every one of these offenses – which range from numerous traffic violations, to possession of pot, to burglary – if he had been convicted of all these things – which he was not – would that mean his life did not matter? Would that mean he was utterly dispensable? Would that mean the officer who pulled him over because there was no license plate on the front of his car – the campus cop who was not even aware of this “lengthy rap sheet” – would that have given the officer, the right to execute him?

As a former journalist who wrote headlines and designed newspaper pages for a living – I can see right through the unspoken, maybe even unconscious message of this Sunday Page 1. It tells us, in no uncertain terms, to forget the fact that an unarmed man was shot in the head, at point-blank range, while sitting in the driver’s seat of his car, at the end of an otherwise routine, rather innocuous, non-confrontational traffic stop – all of which was captured on video, by the officer’s body camera.

This page says: “Forget all that. See – Samuel DuBose was a criminal!” It says, “Let’s paint that in stark relief for you. Let’s put it on your doorstep, you suburban subscribers, much the same way Martin Luther put his 95 theses on the door of that cathedral in Germany.”

Yes, the front page of The Enquirer – never mind the actual article, on page 8 (no one bothers to read those) – makes the point very clearly: Samuel DuBose was a criminal. But is that the point? Should it be? Is it more important that DuBose had a criminal record – or that he is dead? Does his life, after all, matter? I suppose it depends on who you ask.

I say to you today, that black lives matter. Samuel DuBose’s life mattered – this newspaper notwithstanding – just as much as our own children’s lives matter. That is my faith. That is my Universalism. Samuel DuBose’s mother grieves today, the same as you or I would – though her pain is punctuated by the knowledge that if her son had been white, he surely would still be alive today.

I know a young white male in this congregation who was pulled over, not long ago, for not having his headlights on. When that police officer stood over him, there on the side of the road, he didn’t look down at the man behind the wheel and see a “thug.”

(Ah, there’s that word – “thug.” I encourage you to notice when, and in what instances and what contexts, you see and hear that word these days. It has been pointed out that “thug” is becoming the new “N-word.” So pay attention. Pay attention to language. It is one of the places that racism is most subtly conveyed.)

No, that officer didn’t see a “thug.” Or a “black male suspect.” He simply saw a kid – not even a “white” kid, I dare say, since white people don’t ever see “white” people – they just see people. All that officer saw, that evening, was an absent-minded kid – whom he politely told to turn on his lights, and have a good night.

The thing is – and it’s becoming more and more difficult to deny this – if that young man had been black, there’s a very good chance he would have gotten one of these [pointing at the newspaper “rap sheet”] – or ended up in jail. Or worse.

Earlier this summer, three days after being pulled over in rural Texas for improper use of her turn signal, Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old African-American, died in a county jail in Texas. Now I bet I didn’t use my turn signal on half the turns or lane changes I made coming to church today. But for a white person in the United States to be pulled over because of your turn signal is pretty much unheard of. In the highly unlikely event that an officer had stopped me because of it, I’m pretty confident I would have received little more than a smile and a kindly admonishment. I know I would not have ended up in jail. I know I would not have ended up dead.

That’s just the truth, folks. We don’t have to worry about those things. Black people do. And those who would tell you otherwise – those who can always find some convoluted way to blame the dead person – are, at best, in denial. Denial of the reality of American life.

Earlier, I proposed that the simple statement “black lives matter” is countercultural, because America has never – and I mean never – been a culture in which the lives of people of color matter. Beginning with the genocide and forced migration of Native Americans, to the enslavement of Africans, to Constitutional amendments that declared some human beings to have three-fifths the value of other human beings – to “peonage,” an insidious form of legalized slavery that lasted well into the 20th century – to abhorrent Supreme Court decisions both long ago, and very recent – if we are to be brutally honest, we must admit that indeed, America never has been a culture in which black lives matter.

Quite the contrary. Despite its lofty ideals, expressed so eloquently in founding documents and patriotic poetry alike, America was literally built on the subjugation of people of color – and for generations, since its first generation, our society has both legally and culturally institutionalized that subjugation – to the point that, in most cases, we white people never even see it, much less have to think about it. Yet as we have heard this morning, from one voice after another, black people must see it and think about it – must live it – every breath of their lives.

Now I want to offer you a white voice, who articulates what this could – and should – mean for us. Mandy Hitchcock is a young white mother who wrote the following blog, shortly after the killings in Charleston:

“While we must absolutely listen to and try to understand and love our black brothers and sisters – while we must absolutely bear witness to the pain that is the black experience in America – while we must absolutely stand in solidarity with black people – racism is a white problem. It was created by white people, and it must be solved by white people.

“It is not the responsibility of our black brothers and sisters to teach us how not to be racist. [Or] to educate us about racism, [or] to explain white privilege to us, [or] to tell us where to begin. It is our job as white people, to do that work.”

And so, my friends, I am here today to say two things. One, is that black lives matter. We know this instinctively – just as we know this through our Universalist faith. We know, too, if we are honest, that we live in a society in which black lives do not matter – and in fact, never have. So let us not be in denial.

The second thing I want to say to you today, is exactly what Mandy Hitchcock said: It is our job – our work – our sacred calling – to start doing the hard work of learning about, and ultimately dismantling, the individual and systemic racism that is a blight upon our American landscape, on our American history, and on the ideals we profess.

This reflection is but part of a long conversation about race that we must have in this congregation. It’s not just a one-and-done sermon. We will continue to grapple with these difficult truths in the year – and no doubt, the years – ahead.

To that end, let us celebrate – and join in – the work that has already been begun, here in our congregation, by the Racial Justice Team of our Social Justice Collaborative. I understand that while I was on sabbatical, a very well-attended Sunday afternoon discussion helped dozens of you begin to think about, and examine, the subtle and often unconscious prejudices and stereotypes we all have.

Last week, 14 of us saw, and then discussed, the powerful documentary “Slavery by Another Name.” We learned more than one new truth, about the systematic subjugation of black people, long after the end of the Civil War. If you missed it, you can join others from Heritage, and from the interfaith community, at an encore showing, at the Lutheran Church of the Resurrection, on Oct. 6.

This fall, there will be important opportunities to engage in congregational and community dialogue and education, including a program we are planning here in Anderson Township tentatively titled “Examining Our Whiteness.”

In the meantime, if what you have heard and felt and experienced this morning has touched your heart – if it has moved you in any way – please make a commitment today, to engage in this work. Read your UU World, and books like “The New Jim Crow,” by Michelle Alexander. Read the papers and watch the news – even if it is difficult; even if it angers you. And have conversations. Honest conversations. Share thoughts and feelings with one another, with me, with your family, with neighbors and co-workers and acquaintances.

We will only begin to move toward the “justice, equity, and compassion” that our second Unitarian Universalist principle calls us to seek – we will only begin to create a world in which, as our first UU principle says, the “inherent worth and dignity of every person” is affirmed and protected – if we begin to talk, with each other.

The longest journey, begins with a single step. Today – may we take that step. Let us learn to talk – and walk – together.

Ashé. Blessed be. Amen.

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